His dad dragged him into the lobby where they usually served continental breakfasts. The entire football team was sitting there, scattered around with drawn, ashen faces.
“My son needs to turn himself in,” Coach Kilcher said to his assistant coaches. “But first, I want to know who was with him last night, because I don’t believe for a second that he went on his own. I have two guesses.”
Paul looked at Mike and Jimmy. Jimmy stared at the floor. Mike clenched his jaw and stared back at him. The other players began whispering among themselves, shooting Paul hateful looks. “He ruined everything,” one said aloud.
Paul’s dad turned to him. “You left Wade somewhere while you went out drinking, didn’t you?”
“No, Dad. ”
“Yes you did. I can smell it,” Coach Kilcher replied. “You abandoned your brother to impress your cool friends. And to meet a girl. I found this in your room.”
He held up a slip of paper with the girl’s number on it.
“Hey, I want that!” Paul said, trying to grab it. His dad hit him again, a hard smack across the face.
Mike’s dad stormed in.
“We ain’t forfeiting this game because your little retard wandered off,” he shouted in Coach Kilcher’s face. “That little shit ruins everything.”
Coach Kilcher looked up at him. “What did you just say?”
“You heard me,” Mike’s dad replied. “My son isn’t going to miss out on a state championship because of your little retard.”
Paul’s dad punched him, and Paul ran, grabbing his dad’s car keys off the tabl.
“Fuck you, Mike!” he yelled over his shoulder. “And fuck you, Jimmy.”
Jimmy came running out after him. “Paul, wait,” he called after him. “I’ll make it up to you, I promise. Maybe not now, but after the game...”
“The game’s over,” Paul said. He jumped into his dad’s car and tore off, already determined to never see Pine City again.
He drove and drove, feeling numb and dreamlike as I-75 led him south and out of Michigan. For many hours--and who knows how many--he had to pull over, praying that none of this was real. He sat in the car until it grew cold and started to get dark outside. A truck stop attendant knocked on his door and asked him, “What the hell are you doing?”
He rolled up the window without answering and drove away.
Before he crossed over the Ohio border, he turned the radio on just in time to hear Pine City lose. Jimmy McGrath, once considered a promising college athlete, played his worst game ever. Mike Womack was jumpy and fumbled a lot. But worst of all, Pine City missing its head coach. He’d spent all day looking for his disabled son, whose mangled body was found on the side of the road around dusk. It appeared he was hit by a car, but local authorities considered the death suspicious. They were trying to figure out how Wade ended up there, miles from his hotel, all alone on the dark interstate.
The last time anyone had seen him, he was walking with an older boy,
who put his arm around him as he led him away.
Paul didn’t speak to anyone for the blur of time that passed as he traveled through Ohio. He spent the few hundred dollars left in his bank account on cheap motels, where he checked in but never slept.
His family never came looking for him, and his dad never even tried to track his stolen car. Over time, Paul lost hope that they still wanted anything to do with him. They thought he killed Wade, one way or another, even though it was Mike and not Paul who was last seen with him.
At least he’d had enough credits to be a high school graduate. With no job and no school to attend, he began drinking at lonely little bars on Route 33 in Ohio. No one cared that he was only eighteen. It was the poorest part of the state, where the flat farmland of central Ohio became the rolling hills of Appalachia. At least the motels--and the beer--were cheap.
He spent Christmas alone in a motel, and that winter, he lost his virginity. He met the woman in a bar one night. She told him she was twenty and suggested they return to his room. As he tried to wrap his arms around her afterward, she shoved him off.
“One hundred,” she said.
He hadn’t realized she was a prostitute. That night, he cried himself to sleep and dreamt about the girl in the white dress.
When his money was running out, he met an older man, sixty-something, in a diner on Route 33. After four beers, he told the man his story. He didn’t hold back: he told him about the playoff game, the fateful night in the bar, and Wade’s death.
His name was Jack, and he offered Paul a job as a trucker. For the next few years, he wandered like a ghost along the lonely highways in the Midwest.
But when he returned to Ohio, at least he had something that resembled a family. He spent the holidays with Jack’s family, sleeping there on his weeks away from the road. Jack’s wife treated him like one of her own children, hugging him every time he left for another week on the road.
One night, he was driving into the Appalachian foothills when he pulled off Route 33 into a small town. It had brick streets and big, old brick buildings draped with ivy. As he drove down a side street, he watched three young men leave a dwelling that looked like a historic hotel. As the screen door slammed behind them, someone called to them from the window.
“Have fun tonight!” they hollered. “Bring me back a case of Miller Lite.”
Paul had eerie flashbacks to the night Wade died.
Later that night, when he was driving through Appalachia, he turned on the radio. He heard the tinny, joyous sound of a high school football game. The narrator’s cheerful voice send chills down his spine. It was dark and rainy, and he knew it was too late at night for a high school football game.
In the hills ahead, he thought he saw ghosts. They watched him from behind the pine trees with glaring eyes. “We know you killed Wade,” they seemed to be whispering at him, more aggressively the faster he drove. Soon he was barreling down the highway, too fast to break for a white figure running across the highway.
He slammed on the breaks and called Jack.
“I’m seeing ghosts,” he said, hyperventilating into the phone. “I heard a football game on the radio...I think I’m gonna die.”
Jack drove three hours and knocked on the door of Paul’s truck.
“Paul, you have to let go of your past,” he said. “The town you stopped in. Were there a lot of young people out, and were there cobblestone streets and old brick buildings?”
“It was MU,” Paul said, shaking and sweating. “But a ghost town. I’m freaking out, Jack.”
“No, it was was Athens, home to Ohio University,” Jack said. “I want you to go there. As for the football game, I’d like to introduce you to the joy of Monday Night Football.”
And Paul did go to school, not at Ohio University, but Hocking College in the nearby town of Nelsonville. He spent a lot of time at the rec center at OU, trying to run and sweat out his memories. His hair got darker and he put on muscle. He did it until he looked in the mirror one day and saw his father.
Two years passed, and he finally had a semblance of a normal life. He went to to class and ate dinner with Jack and his family. He drank beer on the front porch with his friends every Friday night. He graduated and started looking for a day job that would get him off the road. Eventually, he worked up the nerve to get a Facebook account.
One day, he got a friend request from a blonde girl. The image haunted him. She asked for his number, and he responded, waiting all day with a pounding heart. When his phone rang, it was Jimmy’s voice on the other line. All these years later, Paul recognized it immediately.
“Two things,” Jimmy said. “One, don’t give your number out to strangers. Two, I never forgot about you.”
Jimmy kept his promise to make up for what happened to Wade. As soon as he got his first impressive job, he invited Paul to work there too, as a security for Right Now. Paul told Jimmy he had only one other wish: to find that girl.
“Have you lost your mind?”
Paul and Elise looked up to find Jay Mack standing there, climbing over the rocks.
Paul jumped at the sound of his voice. “Hey, get out of here, Jimmy,” he shouted back.
Elise gasped. “What did you call him?” she asked. “Is he the same person you were telling me about?”
Jay and Paul stared at each other. “Yeah, he goes by Jay Mack now,” he said angrily. “People think it sounds cooler. Your co-workers don’t know it’s the stupid nickname I gave him in high school.”
Jay reached out and shook Elise’s hand. “Allow me to re-introduce myself,” he said. “I’m Jimmy McGrath, or J. Mac for short. And Paul, you’re going to get arrested if you don’t get out of here.”
“I’m not,” Paul said. “I’m walking away. My dad’s dying. You can keep all the money. I’m taking my car and the cash I have left, and I’m going home.”
He turned to Elise. “Elise, go with Jimmy,” he said. “I was going to take you with me, but I can’t do that to you. Your parents expect you home in a few days. Don’t disappear on them, like I did to my family.”
Elise complied, trying to hold her head high as they drove back to the resort she had never hoped to see again.
Jackie was standing in the lobby of The Palace, waiting for Jimmy.
“The jig is up,” he said to her before she could talk. “Paul left. Chase wants him prosecuted for assault.”
Elise stared at Jackie. “You were in on the photo scheme too?”
Jackie bit her lip. “It wasn’t supposed to go this far,” she said.
“So you helped them plaster pictures of me in my underwear on the Internet?” Elise said, folding her arms over her chest. “I want to know why you did that to me.”
“I wanted revenge on the network for what they did to me,” Jackie said. “They picked me as a contestant for Eligible Bachelor knowing about the pictures. It was all staged ahead of time. They were using me for ratings.”
She looked at the ground. “So Jimmy said he would help me by getting scandalous pictures of other Right Now reality stars. Except without their permission. He would give half the money to Paul to repay him for what happened in high school, and half to me. I need it for the baby.”
Jimmy snapped to attention. “For what?”
There was a short pause.
“Sorry, Jimmy,” she said, finally calling him by his real name. “I’m pregnant.”
“Is it mine?”
Chandler and Lanny came barging out of the elevator.
“When were you going to tell us you were working with that silicone-chested skank?” Lanny demanded.
“Give it up already. She’s all natural,” Jimmy replied. “But you know what isn’t? Chandler’s nose.”
The bystanders in the lobby started to snicker. Chandler looked ready to throw something.
“Go pack your shit and call an airport taxi,” Chandler screamed at him. “You’re fired.”
“You say that as if I care,” he replied dismissively. “Nice knowing you guys.”
The lights flickered, then died. The sound of silence was so grating that everyone in the lobby let out a collective gasp.
“Why is the power out?” someone asked. “Doesn’t this resort have generators?”
“Great,” Elise muttered. “How am I going to get back to my room in the pitch black?”
Someone ran into the lobby screaming, “Everyone get in the casino! We’re under attack!”
“Oh my God,” Elise said. She dove behind a chair to avoid the stampede of guests who were refusing to obey orders.
“I said the casino! Now!”
It was a hotel employee, making a futile to herd everyone inside.
“You have thirty seconds before we lock the doors.”
Elise got up and dashed for the casino, tripping over a card table. A bartender was digging for flashlights and passing them out to the other employees. They scanned them over the crowd.
“What do you mean, under attack?” one of the guests asked. “From who? ISIS? Mexican drug lords?”
“We have no idea,” the bartender said. “Nobody move until we tell you otherwise.”
In the semi-darkness, Elise heard a familiar voice. It was Grace, and she was sobbing. Although the power was out, the light from her iPhone illuminated her face. She frantically tried to dial.
“I want to go home,” she moaned. “I want to go home.”
Elise ran up to her. “Grace!” she cried. “Where’s Carson?”
“I don’t know. I tried to call her, but I have no cell phone reception.”
It was of no use. Whoever was attacking Esmeralda Island had interfered with cell service.
“Oh my God!” someone yelled. “Look out the window!”
Inside the casino, they could see speedboats circling the island like a bunch of sharks. The drivers were men in head-to-toe black outfits.
It looked straight out of a chase scene in an action movie.
“Everyone stay away from the windows!” someone said. “It’s a terrorist attack.”
The gasps and screams resumed as power generators whirred, and the lights revived.
“Turn those off!” the bar manager ordered. “We don’t want them to see us in here.”
“Why would they do this to us?” Elise said, dumbfounded by what a nightmare this week had been. She had anticipated diva antics from Carson, but she’d never expected this. “What do terrorists want from a bunch of college students on spring break?”
“Don’t worry, Elise,” Grace said, her voice shaking. “We can get through this.”
She opened up her purse and pulled out her Bible. “There’s a verse in here about this...I’m sure,” she said. “I need to find it.” She looked like she was about to faint.
“I know a few,” Jackie said, coming over to sit next to her.
Grace looked pleasantly surprised. “Really?”
“I haven’t been to church in years, but I’ve read the Bible,” Jackie replied.
“Don’t worry, Grace,” a loud, confident voice announced. “It’s staged.”
It was Connor Kardeza. He stood over them with a half-smile that was one part infuriated, two parts amused.
“How do you know?” Grace asked.
“Think about it. Right Now owns this entire island, right? Every year they try to top what happened last year. It’s all about the ratings. And who did they call to help them out? The biggest attention whores on the face of the planet: the Kardeza family.”
He had the whole room’s attention now.
“And they shouldn’t get away with it any longer,” he said.
“But what if it’s real?” Elise asked him.
“Oh my God, they’re coming ashore!” someone screamed. “The terrorists are going to attack the resort!”
“Oh, hell no,” Jimmy McGrath said. “Don’t tell me the Kardezas are staging a national emergency.”
“Of course they are,” Connor said. “You don’t get it, man. You don’t know how low they stoop. When CJ Sampson murdered his wife, my dad put me in his blood-spattered car and drove us around. You know, to use the kid for an alibi. I was ten at the time.”
He shook his head as if to dislodge the memory. “Anyway, it’s fake. They’re pretending to be held hostage to distract from Leroy’s overdose. Maybe even collect a ransom while they’re at it.”
“There’s a one percent chance it’s real,” Jimmy said. “But I’m willing to risk it to stop these people once and for all.”
“Me too,” Connor said.
“Me too,” Grace and Jackie added.
They all looked at Elise.
“I’m in,” she said.
She drew a deep breath. “The only question is, what do we do?”
One of the hostage-takers had a bullhorn. “Everyone freeze and don’t move an inch!” a terrifying voice commanded. “We’re here for the Kardeza family!”
“Told you so,” Connor said.
“Carson must be with them,” Grace said. “I wonder if she was in on this.”
“Of course she was,” Connor replied. “The only thing worse than a Kardeza is a Kardeza wannabe.”
“I have a flashlight,” Jimmy said. “Let’s go up to the producer’s suite and see what we can find.”
The five of them--Jimmy, Connor, Jackie, Grace, and Elise--went up a back staircase in the dark.
Chandler and Lanny’s laptops were still running on battery power.
“Check the desks,” Jimmy commanded the girls. He and Connor began rifling through the files on the laptops.
Jackie pulled out a file from the desk. It was the same one Jimmy had seen Kandi deliver to Right Now headquarters on that fateful day in January.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” she said. “Look at this.”
They gathered around the table. In front of them were several dummy copies of Celebrity Life, with the Kardeza family on the cover.
“Kardezas kidnapped at sea!” blared one headline.
“Kardezas held hostage by drug lords!”
“Jesus,” Jimmy said. “This was all staged ahead of time by the Kardezas and the Right Now Network. I could kick myself for suggesting that they get involved.”
“Look at this one,” Connor said, holding up the fake cover. “Kardezas missing: was it extraterrestrials?”
“I hope that one was a joke,” Jimmy said.
“I wouldn’t put it past them,” Connor replied. “Let’s go up to their suite and see what else they’re hiding.”